What makes illegal file sharing on the Internet any different to stealing a DVD from a store, and is it the job of the bus company to refuse to accept you as a passenger on the route to town because you have been accused of shoplifting there?
The Government is reconsidering its position on how to tackle illegal file sharing, suggesting that the initial approach it adopted in the Digital Britain Report was unlikely to yield the results as quickly as it wanted. The topic of illegal file sharing is very controversial with the creative industries and service providers battling over who should be responsible for policing the actions of end users who are breaking the law.
Who should police the Internet?
The Internet is seen by many as the badlands of the world, unrestricted by national laws. It has helped to break through censorship and taboos in many countries, but equally presents the same technical problems for those who think censorship of some kind is desirable, and there are some strong arguments on both sides.
There is a danger that Broadband Service Providers are seen as the obvious choice to act as the policemen of the Internet (or even worse, judge, jury and executioner as well) because they have the technical ability to cut someone off. Would you expect your electricity company to cut the power to your home if you were playing music too loud?
It is about time that the government accepted that it is its responsibility to fund a police force that can cope with modern policing requirements including investigating criminal offences committed online, and it is the role of the creative industry to enforce their intellectual property rights in the civil courts. It may well be that we need to refresh the criminal laws of theft to better cope with digital goods and services, and that we need to reform the court system to make the process quicker and fairer on costs. The idea of some sort of quango or music company telling my ISP that I have been doing something illegal without a way for me to defend every accusation is very worrying. Could I sue a music company for libel if they wrongly reported me to my ISP on the basis that it damages my reputation and causes me financial loss as I have to defend my right to continue to browse the web?
What should happen if you break the law?
Two simple words: Due Process. If you go and steal something from a shop, you are charged and have an opportunity to go to court to defend yourself. Just because the process of 'stealing' music has become cheaper and more common, shouldn't mean that we should bypass that process for expediency or cost savings. The effect of restricting someone's broadband connection is to disconnect them from the modern digital society, more so as high bandwidth applications like video conferencing and user generated content takes off. What makes online theft so different to walking into a shop and stealing that CD?
Confusing the problem...
It seems that often Internet related problems are seen as 'technical problems' requiring technical solutions rather than underlying social problems. This is often why IT security fails as it doesn't take into consideration the human factor. The government seems rather focussed on illegal 'p2p' file sharing (the technical protocol) which it is trying to address, rather than tackling the underlying issues (consumer choice, perceptions and piracy at a high level). The Digital Britain Report even suggests that most people would prefer not to break the law if they had the choice, so surely this is about ensuring the creative industries embrace the Internet. Why are they not focussing tax breaks on those companies that are innovating in this area to give the industry a signal that they also need to adapt?
Technical solutions to curb illegal activity will have little long term impact unless it is accompanied by a change in attitudes of users to how they consume music and other media. CCTV cameras are often cited as not reducing crime, but simply displacing it and immobilisers make stealing a car without a key very difficult, so thieves have adapted to steal car keys during a burglary.
At present, rights holders track illegal activity by monitoring p2p networks and tracking the perpetrator's "IP addresses" which identify their service provider. The existence of distributed networks such as Tor mean that the idea of tracking users is bound to get more and more difficult if they need to hide their tracks.
The struggle of a changing business environment..
The Internet has been a force for globalisation, yet we still find that software vendors might charge £100 for a product in the UK and $100 for the same package in the U.S. even with electronic delivery. Even taking into consideration distribution costs, it seems they are trying to protect the old way of doing business in the same way most DVD players are 'region locked' and will only play DVDs for the region you buy them from.
Telecommunications companies used to make most of their revenue from 'per minute' call charges. When competition was introduced by way of mobile phone and cable operators, the shift has been towards 'per second' charges. Yet, any telecoms executive thinking ahead should know that in ten years' time, they won't be making their profit from these charges at all but from value added services or bundles. So whilst you can now buy a single track for £0.79 on Amazon rather than paying £7.90 for the full album, there has been no drastic change as yet in the wider industry towards a new business model. Last.fm tried it but it didn't quite work as it didn't give you the same flexibility to choose what you wanted to listen to; Spotify might be the start of a change, although I still can't listen to it in my car.
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